The River Between Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

From the novel’s onset, when mythic unity gives way to the division of the Kikuyu on opposing ridges, the theme of a people’s right to authority over their own land and lives seems apparent. How the Kikuyu are to achieve that authority, however, is not so easily grasped. The central issues of education and religion under colonial domination pervade the novel, but the irreversibility of historical change, Ngugi suggests, does not permit one to linger in a sentimental vision of the way things were once done. Waiyaki’s role as headmaster and founder of the independent schools is evidence of the historical strength of the Kikuyu capacity to change, a capacity that bears witness to the Kikuyu dominance of modern Kenya. With respect to religion, Ngugi here seems to suggest that some degree of synthesis is possible between a politically informed Christianity and traditional values of kinship and prophecy (a view that he was later to modify considerably).

Certainly, the European institutions of education, religion, and government undermine Kikuyu autonomy, but the very subjugation of the Kikuyu that forms the historical background of the novel also raises the issue of adequate and appropriate leadership and resistance to European hegemony in Kenya and, by extension, in all colonial Africa. Waiyaki’s final realization, though it comes too late for him to make use of it, that education alone—specifically, a European education—cannot establish tribal unity and that political action is necessary for preserving cultural identity in the midst of change suggests that the oppressed in a colonial situation must act in order to regain self-respect, even as the culture changes under colonial domination. Chege’s instruction and Waiyaki’s enactment of it, paradoxically, do not go far enough. Chege’s failure to see that his son will be changed by his strategy of resistance is Waiyaki’s failure to realize that one must act out of a consciousness that itself is inevitably changing.

The River Between Themes

The River, Honia
As indicated in the title, Ngugi uses the river as a dividing line between two communities. To understand the inner-workings of this region, readers must look no further than the body of water that divides them. On either side of the river are the old and the new, the tribal and the Christian belief systems, and the strident efforts of both black and white people. The river provides the balm in preparation for circumcision as its cooling waters prepare the body for the rite. For Nyambura and Muthoni, the river is a part of their daily routine and a source of life. Nyambura returns to the river after Muthoni’s death to find comfort in the water. Waiyaki also visits the river to find solace from the tensions of the two villages.

Transformation and Rainfall
Rainfall plays an important role in transformation in the community. The region depends on rain to fill its river and provide a source of water for crops. Many of the tribe’s rituals and celebrations are based on this unpredictable dependence on rain as it can transform the community from the edge of famine to the riches of a harvest and survival. Also rain plays a role as Waiyaki opens his school. He is at a crossroads in his life. Rain drips through the corrugate-iron roof forming puddles and pools of water. For Waiyaki, the rotting grass thatch of the school building is no deterrent to rain. The lucky students had something with which to cover their heads. His mind returns to the idea of rain as a blessing as he continues to watch the rain. It is a blessing and saves his people from the famine that they have been fearing. Then again, he becomes angry with the rain as it carries away the soil, making the land poor. These vicissitudes with rainfall mirror Waiyaki’s own internal struggle to move forward and build for the future and also maintain a sense of identity and connection with the past. The transformation goes back and forth like the seasons.

Individual vs. Community
Can an individual assert his or her own beliefs within a community and continue to be accepted as part of that community? The River Between poses this question with each of the central characters. Waiyaki walks between two worlds and finds value in both, even if he adheres to his tribe’s traditions. As he remains faithful to his community, he also seeks answers from the white community, as his father instructed him. He protects others from oppression. As a boy, he disrupts the fight between Kinuthia and Kamua to free Kinuthia from the unfair fight. As an adult, he recognizes the bravery and singular sense of purpose in both Muthoni and Joshua. This sense of community and individual goals affects not only the two separate communities of Makuyu and Kameno but also to the level of the family. How can Muthoni explain her sense of identity tied both to the tribe and Christianity so that her family can understand? She knows this is not an explanation that her father will understand, and she continues with her...

(The entire section is 1241 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear